Demystifying Mental Health...On the Radio! An interview with podcast host Hillary McBride

“I like to tell people when I start working with them that I’m a therapist because therapy has changed my life. As a therapist, I know what it’s like to be on both sides of the couch." Normally, therapy sessions are totally confidential — but a new podcast from the CBC opens the doors. Hillary McBride and her clients want to help demystify mental health. No actors. No auditions. No artifice. In-Mind sat down with Hillary, a therapist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of British Columbia, and the host of the podcast called Other People’s Problems

Other People's Problems airs weekly at Image courtesy of CBC Original Podcasts

Lucas Keefer (LK; In Mind Editor-in-Chief): Can you tell us a little bit about yourself just to get things started?

Hillary McBride (HM): Yes, absolutely! I’m a Ph.D. candidate in Vancouver, BC. I’m just near the end of my doctoral work and I have a private practice in the city, so I’m a mix of a clinician and an academic. A lot of my research focuses on growth, striving, and well-being. That, and the politics of mental health as well, and trying to push for an understanding of what it means to be healthy and well. I try to challenge the norms we have about mental health and stigma and stereotypes that get in the way of us being well. So yeah: Researcher and therapist.

LK: Can you tell us a little more about the show?

HM: The show is really meant to destigmatize therapy and to create an acceptability of it. Normally what we do in therapy is so private and behind closed doors. Nobody gets to know what’s going on in there except the client and the therapist. It’s different every session: Every therapist and client has a different experience of each other. So there’s a kind of mystery. And therapy in popular media doesn’t really represent what therapy is actually like. So the purpose of the show is to create an acceptability for therapy and to help normalize it. Ultimately, and this is the probably the main goal of a lot of my work, I want to help people feel less alone and help them realize that the struggles of life are not something unique to them. 

Mitchell Brown (MB; In-Mind Associate Editor and Blog Coordinator): When putting the show together, did you have any other ideas before settling on this specific idea?

HM: Actually, it wasn’t my idea. It was an idea of Jodie Martinson who’s a producer over at CBC. Jodie had said “I want to tell a story about therapy” because she had gone to some therapy and realized that “Oh my goodness, it’s so different from what people think it’s like!” So she went on the look for some therapists who would be involved. There were some other people initially who were involved, but the ethics of it and the visibility of it are not something that had really been done before. The Esther Perel Show is kind of like it but to get more people involved and to do it- yeah the ethical implications of it [...] it ended up being just me on my own.

MB: That sounds like it could be a red tape nightmare.

HM: Yeah, but the people who wanted to be involved really didn’t need any convincing. That wouldn’t have been ethical on my part either, of course. A big part of how I work is to say that I don’t just want you to see a reduction of symptoms. Actually, what I want for you to do is to get to the place where you’re experiencing growth and striving in your life. One of the ways I feel that like that best grounds them is to be involved in some sort of social action or mental health advocacy. I often encourage people toward the end of their treatment to just take a stand for the things they feel are really important to them and to get involved in some way with helping other people who are hurting. That way they are transforming their suffering into something that actually feels life-giving. 

MB: It sounds like it’s been a net positive. With all that in mind, what would you consider some of the advantages for your clients whose sessions are discussed on the show?

HM: What’s really cool about the process is that we would record the sessions and we record tons and tons and tons of them. Then the people at CBC, the producer, would hear the audio and choose which sessions would be appropriate for a podcast. In doing that, we didn’t really know which sessions would be picked, so we were just doing therapy as normal. Then the sessions would be sent back to me because everything was confidential and the CBC team didn’t actually know who the clients were. Then I would send it to my clients and in doing so I would listen to it and I would screen it. Then I would send it to them and they would listen to it and they would screen it.

We got to hear all the things we might have missed the first time around. They got to hear moments of growth or insight played back to them and hear what they sounded like when they were talking about painful or beautiful moments. So there was like this - getting to step back and analyze the moment. It was almost like another round of insight or another round of therapy. More publicly, one of the effects has been - I guess the positive for them has been giving a sense or feeling that they have been participating in changing culture or changing discourse around mental health. 

LK: Yeah, and that’s probably empowering for them to feel like they are making such a difference.

HM: Yes, absolutely. 

LK: It sounds like you hope that listeners learn quite a bit about the process of therapy and the clients are getting, as you pointed out, a second round of therapy by going over the tapes and they get to feel like they are making difference. Beyond the audience and the people who are in therapy themselves, what are you hoping that other people in your profession - other mental health professionals - might take from this show?

HM: One of the things that was a struggle for me is knowing that I don’t do therapy perfectly. I’m not expecting that anybody else does, but I think that there’s some fear or a kind of performance anxiety if you will about not being perfect at what we do. So I wanted to take a step out; to show my work and to have other therapists realize that it’s okay to make mistakes. It’s okay to be imperfect, but we still need to move forward in how we support people and challenge some of the stereotypes about mental health and perfectionism. Putting myself out there and taking a risk is something that I think I wish other therapists would do so we can change the discourse.

Also, the last piece here is that we have four principles that guide our code of ethics if you will here in Canada. So the Canadian Psychological Association - quite like the American Psychological Associations - has put out a code of ethics that we are all supposed to adhere to. There are four principles and you know they include things like confidentiality and beneficence and doing things like supporting the client and preventing harm. All the regular things that you would expect from a code of ethics. But the thing that we almost always leave out is Principle Four: Responsibility to Society. We actually have an ethical responsibility to our communities and to our society at large around being gatekeepers to mental health and being people who have access to information about what it means to thrive.

MB: To disseminate?

HM: Right. We actually have a responsibility to do something with that. So this for me is really a sense of taking that responsibility seriously. I wish that other therapists would do that as well and that we would recognize that we have so much insight, training, and education and that other people would benefit if we would share it and it’s not so private.

LK: As you said there’s a lot of pressure to keep these sessions so locked down and people have an ethical responsibility to keep them secret. So there’s this feeling that you can’t share which is really antithetical to -as you point out- this desire to make a difference and educate the public. So, it’s an interesting tension.

HM: Yeah, but I think there are lots of ways we can take the responsibility seriously without making sessions public. I write regularly for different blogs and newspapers and, you know, we have podcasts and these things that try to give psychology away. That was one of the phrases that one of my mentors along the way used for me that really captured the essence of responsibility to society: give psychology away. We have all of this insight and all of this knowledge and we cannot just keep it for ourselves.

MB: Yeah - that’s pretty much in line with the way that In-Mind wants to disseminate information. We’re targeting primarily an audience that wants to learn more about the science of psychology, particularly in a way that is palatable and can easily be disseminated. What might our readers gain from your show?

HM: I think some general information about suffering and healing and change and growth. There are little snippets that I add into each show that are sliced in between the other audio of the therapy sessions where I explain certain things like why it’s so hard for us to change and let go and move on when we’ve had childhood trauma. Or what are some of the issues that show up in a marriage when people are working through becoming who they feel they want to be. And what are some of the ways that we can get over heartbreak and how do we do that in a digital world. So there are so many snippets in this show that the average person - and particularly the readers of your publication - will really benefit from hearing because they’re just about being human and what it means to understand ourselves and other people.

LK: Right, and of course the science of psychology has a long history of ignoring those kinds of things so it’s just nice to be reminded that hope and strength and growth matter.

HM: Absolutely.

Hillary in session. Image courtesy of Hillary McBride.

LK: I want to pivot a minute and just ask about your experience doing the show. Have you had any topics or episodes that really stood out for yourselves or your listeners? Or maybe people contacted you about something that was really interesting?

HM: You know I’ve had lots and lots of people contact me. But what’s been most interesting is that they haven’t contacted me about the content of the episodes. What they’ve contacted me about is my style of therapy. So what I got from people is - particularly in the first episode, there’s an episode I do with a woman we’re calling Sloane. At the end of the episode - she suffers childhood trauma and lots of abuse and neglect growing - and so has what I call a complex PTSD presentation. At the end of the episode I tell her that I’m really proud of her and inspired by her and really moved by the way that she’s courageous in moving forward in her life.

I had so many people reach out and say “Wow, I’ve never had a therapist tell me that they were proud of me or inspired by me and that they cared about me or that I impacted them. What kind of style therapy do you use? I want to get that from someone who actually shares with me how they feel about me so I don’t feel so alone within the therapy.” So I’m getting lots of people asking questions about the kinds of therapy that I do and how moved they are by hearing empathy in a way that’s really relational and expressive of myself.

LK: Interesting, I wonder if those people who are curious about it are they - hopefully - going to go try it out themselves. Or are they thinking about therapy and looking into their options. That would be great.

HM: Yeah, there’s lots of people have said "I’m not so scared of trying therapy anymore because I realize a little bit more about what goes on behind the curtain. I want to do therapy because I want to have what those people have.”

MB: That seems to be the recurring theme throughout your show: That therapy is not as scary as people think it is and just this litany of information. Does it seem like one could jump into your show at pretty much any point or would you prefer them to start at the beginning? I’m not sure what would be the best way for me to start binge watching - er, binge listening.

HM: Ha ha, yeah that’s right. I think you can jump it any point because they’re kind of stand-alone episodes. 

LK: So, a few last questions. One thing that we’re curious about - and this is very introspective - but is there anything that you personally feel like you’ve gained from making the show?

HM: Oh yeah, so much. As a therapist, I can answer that first by saying, I’ve gained so much more understanding about those individual clients and how they work and the strength of our relationship and how much they trust me and how much I trust them. I feel like I’m getting so much insight into my craft and I feel like my skill level has increased. So that’s as a therapist but as a human being, I feel so inspired by the ways that they have made their lives accessible to people. It makes me feel like I want to be more courageous in my life and it makes me feel like I want to try new and different things to change narratives about suffering and being human. It has given me more courage to stand up and talk about my story. I have a sense of urgency to do more and step up more and reach out more and to make the information I have even more accessible to other people. 

LK: And hopefully your audience takes some of the same lessons.

HM: I hope so, yeah.

MB: With that in mind and going forward, and instilling that sense of growth and hope and looking to the future…what are your future plans for the show?

HM: Yeah, well we’re just in talks right now about doing Season 2 and we’ve got all sorts of audio. We’ve probably hundreds of hours of audio recorded over the past two years in preparation for Season 1. So we’re just talking with CBC right now about doing Season 2 and we’ll see where that goes. Then we’ve also got ideas about what Season 3 could look like if that moves forward. So we’re just enjoying right now that it’s really impacted so many lives and we’re hoping that we can make even more of a contribution.

LK: Right, and are there any topics or issues that you hope to get into in the future?

HM: Yeah, absolutely. There’s all sorts of things that we recorded and just chose not to put into Season 1. So issues about gender, race, socioeconomic status, issues around workplace harassment, sexual assault, and all sorts of things that are probably quite current in the media right now. They’re things we just need to know more about as humans to feel like we’re less alone.

LK: Well, there’s no shortage of aspects of the human experience to talk about so I think you’ll have a lot to do.

HM: Ha ha, yeah, you’re so right. We can go on forever.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed. For episode downloads, schedules, and more visit the show's homepage. You can learn more about Hillary at her website or follow her Instagram @hillaryliannamcbride and on Twitter @hillarylmcbride

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